Strange as it may sound, a letter dated March 22, 1999, from the owner of Galerie54 in Paris, Eric Touchaleaume, to then Panjab University vice-chancellor MM Puri led to the biggest catch for the dealer of Corbusier and Jeanneret era’s furniture.
On the apparent strength of the letter and a telephone conversation with Puri, Eric was allowed to buy all he could.
In fact, for two years, the French were the only buyers of unserviceable, unused wooden furniture at PU and no auction was held.
The French ended up buying around 1,500 pieces during these two years of unfettered access to pick and choose the furniture.
The dealers even managed to exchange old furniture on the campus, replacing these with new ones from local furniture shops.
The PU authorities, meanwhile, seemingly remained unaware of the significance of the dealers’ actions.
In fact, when the letter from Eric reached PU, special efforts were made to felicitate his visit. The secretary to V-C, professor Iqbal Nath Choudhary, (dated April 1, 1999) wrote a letter to the registrar stores and the dean students welfare office, instructing these offices to take the dealer to places where the furniture was kept and also to make an inventory.
Special orders were issued to complete the task in two days, as the Frenchman would be in the city for a very short time. A committee was also formed to write off the said furniture.
Between April and June, Eric made three visits to India. On June 23, 1999, Eric purchased 541 items from the administrative centre and law block for $5,000 (then conversion rate amounts comes to Rs 2,12,250).
His visits continued and on October 11, 1999, he managed to purchase 330 items from the campus for Rs 1.15 lakh. He then got seven sofa sets and four sofa chairs, replacing them with new ones.
Soon, other French dealers Patrick Sequin, Philippe Jousse and Francois Laffanour — also descended in the city to buy old furniture from the university. Like Eric, the others too got complete access to departments and administrative offices to prepare the inventory.
Impressed by the prices that the French dealers quoted for the furniture, V-C Puri made a special committee on April 6, 2000 to formulate guidelines for future transactions of this nature, including the procedure for conducting their sale.
Patrick, Philippe and Francois and their French agent Carl Wormser purchased furniture on four occasions from March 2000, to January 2001 and their cases too were considered on priority.
On their representation, a circular was sent from the V-C office to all departments to deposit unused and obsolete furniture lying in their departments to the Sector-25 store.
The departments were given very short notice to identify and transport items to the store. In all, theses dealers purchased 514 items for Rs 17 lakh.
They even got a certificate issued from PU authorities required for transportation of the furniture items from Chandigarh to New Delhi and for export to France.
When contacted, then V-C MM Puri said: “The furniture sold to the French team was broken and lying unutilised. So, the deal gave the university a good price and space in the stores. Their price was many times higher than what local scrap dealers used to offer us. On what was their interest in the furniture, I was told that they were in it for the design and the quality of wood was not a consideration.”
PU AUTHORITIES KNEW THAT THE FURNITURE WAS HERITAGE
Panjab University authorities who allowed the French dealers to buy old furniture from the campus from 1999 to 2001, knew the heritage value of the furniture.
A committee constituted by the V-C for writing off the furniture had recommended that the university should set aside some pieces of each item as heritage items.
It was also recommended that efforts must be made to preserve three to five pieces of each heritage item, available in various non-teaching and teaching departments, for possible display at the Fine Arts Museum of the University.
A V-C order dated October 30, 2000, had approved the above recommendations, but never seemed to have been followed.